My new book

My new book is called: Travels through History – Northern Ireland and Scotland 

Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet praised its “timeless beauty and high-grade distractions – golf, whiskey and some of the world’s most famous rocks. The region may be famous for Game of Thrones but its many scenic filming locations are just the start.”

 

Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland covers not only the murals and Titanic Centre in Belfast, but also the world-famous rocks of The Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, and the Beaghmore Stone Circles, situated in Northern Ireland’s darkest area.

The original owners realised it was time to leave Dunluce Castle when the kitchen along with their cooks and the dinner they were preparing fell into the sea during a particularly bad storm.

In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company. Rough Guides, the leading publisher of travel and reference guides, tasked its readers to choose the top 20 most beautiful countries in the world, and Scotland came out on top.

Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland covers not only the capital Edinburgh, but also the Isle of Lewis, the border abbey at Dryburgh, and the mysterious chapel at Rosslyn as featured in the famous book The Da Vinci Code.

On Lewis, itself voted Europe’s top island destination in 2014 by TripAdvisor, I write about the 5,000-year old stone circle at Callanish, the 2,000-year old rock house at Dun Carloway, and the black houses at Arnol where people lived until the 1960s.

In Edinburgh, I describe the sights that can be seen along The Royal Mile from Holyrood House to The Castle including the cafe where JK Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter books. I visited the botanical gardens with its magnificent Victorian Temperate Palm House, the tallest in Britain and a Chinese garden, home to the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside China.

 

The Limerick Snake Hawk

Extract from Animals Evolution Avoided

Legend has it that St Patrick removed all the snakes from Ireland. This theory has no real basis in fact. What’s more likely is that snakes were hunted to extinction by the highly efficient raptor called the Limerick Snake Hawk, the last of which died in Dublin Zoo in 1926 having survived on a diet of long, thin sausages for twenty years.

The snake hawk was the same size as today’s peregrine falcon although its plumage was dark brown. It was thought the colouring enabled it to blend in with the peat bogs. This hawk rarely flew above its prey to dive down to catch it. From the way the last hawk hunted the sausages as they were dragged along the ground by a greyhound, it’s thought the hawk was able to pick up the trail of a snake and then fly on ahead to ambush the snake, hence the need to blend into the background. Hunting in this manner meant the hawk would never pounce on sticks or small branches from a great height and hurt its talons. Once the snake was caught, the hawk would grip the reptile by the tail and swing it against either a tree or a rock, knocking it unconscious before taking its next meal back to the nest.

The Limerick Snake Hawk was a consummate hunter. At the zoo, the last surviving hawk never missed the sausages as they passed by, even when they were tied to the fastest greyhound. Scientists believe that if the hawk had maintained even a 60% kill rate in its hunting, instead of 100%, the species would have survived to this day. It’s ironic that a species, famed for their hunting skills, should become a victim of their own success.

The Maple Reindeer

Extract from Animals Evolution Avoided

50,000 years ago when the land bridge between what is now Russia and what is now Canada was still in existence, large numbers of Kamchatka Reindeer came across to North America and split in two different directions. Some reindeer, who preferred a West-coast lifestyle, migrated almost due south and swam across the shallow channels separating the mainland from the Queen Charlotte Islands where they lived until the early 1900s. The other group, who preferred a more sheltered existence, headed due east and settled in the forests of Maple covering most of northern Canada.

These Maple Reindeer lived almost exclusively on a diet of maple leaves and maple syrup, which the animals licked from the bark of the trees. The maple taste ensured their meat became a delicacy amongst the First Nations bands of the area. The meat was flavourful when cooked and could be eaten easily without requiring sharp implements to cut it. The indigenous peoples hunted sensibly and preserved the numbers of reindeer at manageable levels. At one time, first nations’ chroniclers reported that herds of Maple Reindeer could take two hours to run past a certain spot.

Sadly, the numbers of Maple Reindeer declined rapidly once European settlers came to Canada and hunted the reindeer unmercilessly. The last reindeer died in 1876. Settlers tried to simulate the taste and texture of the meat by soaking beef in maple syrup, but this resulted in a sickly sweet, chewy texture that only really satisfied people who were used to chewing tobacco and wanted a sweet-tasting alternative that wasn’t addictive.

 

The Mambutterfly

Extract from Animals Evolution Avoided

The Mambutterfly is the name given to large elephant-size creatures found in the Siberian permafrost, which had multi-coloured coats as opposed to the single-colour coats of their cousins the Mammoth.

The Mambutterflies fed on mosses, lichens, and other vegetation that contained powerful colouring agents, which changed the colour of their coat. These colouring agents came from the rock the plants grew on. These rocks contained copper, zinc, and mercury. Plants growing on rock containing copper gave the mambutterfly’s coat red-brown colours; plants growing on zinc deposits gave the mambutterfly’s coat blue colours, and plants growing on rocks containing mercury stained the mambutterfly’s coat a silvery-grey colour.

As a result, most mambutterflies were a mixture of blue, red, and silver, which meant they stood out against the tundra in the winter and against the grasslands in the summer. The coats of the mambutterflies were highly prized by the early humans in the region as each coat’s elaborate patterns were unique and couldn’t be copied by a human eye. For this reason, scientists believe the mambutterflies were hunted almost to extinction. Eventually, the remaining creatures journeyed north, far away from the grasslands and the humans found there, to the northern coast of Russia on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

This migration meant their diet changed slightly and they started to eat mosses that were growing on granite and other rocks, which contained fewer metals. Consequently, the coats of the mambutterflies turned black. It’s believed the creatures suffered from anxiety at the loss of their beautifully coloured coats and headed back south to try and regain their former glory. These annual journeys between south and north are the first known migrations of animals.

The Hairy Legs Contest – British Traditions

Excerpt from a book of British Traditions

When people were painting the town red in Melton in the 15th Century some of the locals started to compare various parts of their bodies with those of other people. Eventually, the comparisons turned to the hairiness of the legs and it was noticed that a man called George Loveless had ‘ye legs as hairy as that of a horse.’ Loveless proclaimed himself as having the hairiest legs in Leicestershire and defied anyone to be hairier. He challenged all comers to a contest on the fifth Wednesday of Michaelmas on an annual basis – this was 1456 and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the Hairy Legs competition there are a number of different sections to enter. There’s a prize for the longest leg hair, another for the most amount of hair, and yet another for the most artistic shaping of leg hair. There are separate sections for men and women.

The longest leg hair ever measured was 3 feet 4 inches in length and belonged to Gwendoline Jones, a visitor to Melton, who entered the contest while waiting for a stagecoach to Nottingham in 1753. Gwendoline’s legs were otherwise quite bare, but she did admit that this hair was a great source of pride to her and her family. She used to wash the hair in her monthly bath and treat it with sheep’s oil to ensure that it didn’t become brittle.

The men’s record was 2 feet 9 inches grown by Alan Peacock in the 1870s. The hair was used to help keep his left sock up and he admitted to greasing it with pig’s fat every night, which might explain why his wife left him for a pig farmer.

The hairy legs contest has changed with the advent of cosmetic surgery. People have been disqualified in recent years when the judges have discovered that tufts of hair have been grafted on to people’s legs, although this is more difficult to find than the amateurish attempts of Richard Davis in 1982, who, it was discovered, had glued cat hair to his knees. Davis was given a consolation prize of a tin of cat food and asked to pay his fine into the prize kitty.

For the genuine contestants, the judges comb the hair and discover the lushness and thickness of the fur. Contestants with fleas receive extra marks from the judges as this indicates genuine hair. The colour of the hair doesn’t matter so contestants who dye their grey hairs don’t impress the judges. The area the hair covers is also taken into account as is the location of the hair; furry knees, especially around the back, win high marks.

Competitors frequently use bizarre methods to encourage hair growth; Henry Travers, who won for 13 consecutive years from 1823-1835, swore by standing in a cow pat morning and night for 30 minutes – he is quoted as saying that “ye cowe patte contains growth – look how it makees the grasse become lushe.” Travers never married during his life and lived alone in a house without running water.

Matilda Grinstead, who won the women’s hairiest legs competition between 1901 and 1912, believed her success was down to bathing in baked beans every day – she ate the beans afterwards, which may explain why the judges inspected her legs through a telescope whenever possible.

Contestants’ imaginations run riot in the leg hair sculpture competition, which started in the 1900s when sheep shearer Alex Shepley thought he would start shearing his own legs. For years Shepley’s sheep had been the talk of the Midlands, with their immaculately shaped coats in three neatly trimmed lengths. Shepley had started out as a topiarist but was always disappointed that his hedges couldn’t move. He turned to sheep shearing only after a brief flirtation with hedgehogs resulted in him being hospitalized with multiple punctures to his face.

Shepley thought of the leg hair sculpture contest when he was trimming his toe nails one day and thought that he could do the same with hair. Soon he had a hairy representation of Queen Victoria displayed on his left calf. A pork pie was shaved into his right thigh and soon Shepley was the toast of Melton. He displayed himself at the 1901 contest and was surprised to find that he was not alone in his shaving exploits. Respectable ladies had Gladstone and Disraeli shaved on their thighs; polite gentleman had coaxed representations of naked women from their lower legs – one lovelorn footman had the name of his employer represented on his hairy foot using a combination of glue and flour. The leg hair sculpture contest was born.